Tolkien’s Use Of Elder Races In The Fellowship Of The Ring

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In the introduction of Rhetorics of Fantasy Farah Mendlesohn presents four categories of fantastic stories. Of those four, the category that most accurately describes J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Fellowship of the Ring is the portal-quest style. A portal-quest, in general, is a narrative that takes an unlikely protagonist from their inconsequential existence and thrusts them into a quest where by the protagonist’s naiveté is used to show the world to the reader in such a way that by the time the protagonist succeeds in his or her quest the reader is left with an innate understanding of the world. The last part of this definition is what makes portal-quest style fantastica so immersive for the reader and so difficult for the author to write. The Fellowship of the Ring accomplishes such a task by J.R.R. Tolkien’s clever use of an elder race to give meaning and significance to the world and the quest to save it.

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This portal-quest follows a young hobbit named Frodo along his destiny to destroy the Ring of Power. Frodo, as in all well written portal-quests, starts out in a secluded peaceful location called the Shire. He and most of the hobbits are uninterested in the world and beings outside the Shire; this is represented by their mention of any non-hobbit as “queer folk”. Frodo possesses a magic ring which belongs to an evil ruler named Sauron. If Sauron gets the ring then he can take over Middle Earth so when the Sauron catches wind that the ring is in the Shire he dispatches his servants to go get it for him. Thus Frodo is now an unlikely, unprepared, and inexperienced protagonist on a quest. Frodo’s character profile is exactly the criteria for a portal-quest which means now Frodo must learn and experience middle earth so that the reader can as well.

As Frodo continues on his quest to destroy the ring, he is forced to be constantly on the move because Sauron’s servants, the Black Riders, continue to hunt him down and make it difficult to stay in one spot for too long. Frodo ultimately gets stabbed by one of the Black Riders but through the help of his friends and timely intervention from friends to be he is able to survive and make it all the way to Rivendell. Rivendell is an elvish town where Frodo can rest, heal his wounds, gain further understanding, and develop an idea of what his quest truly entails. This repite for Frodo is where Tolkien can continue building the reader’s understanding by utilizing the elven race as this fantasy’s elder race.

Elves are this portal-quest’s elder race but first it is important to understand what an elder race is. An elder race, as described by John Clute in an entry taken from Encyclopedia of Fantasy, is a race that appears, “…in a fashion which affirms a sense that their Story unveils the Matter of the world.” The excerpt also includes more specific details that fall perfectly in line with the elves in this novel. One being that the elder race has existed far longer than the current races which is coincides with Tolkien’s Elves. During the council of Elrond, Frodo’s attempt to portray the Elven Lord Glorfindel included “…his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy … on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength.” The young adventurer went on to describe the other Elven Lord Elrond’s face as “…ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.” Both Glorfindel and Elrond came into existence during the first age making them well over 2000 years old. Another note Clute makes about an elder race is that they have gifts and talents that cannot be fully explained. After being stabbed by the one of the Black Rider’s Morgul-knife Aragorn, one of Frodo’s protectors, tries to use an extremely rare herb named Athelas that is supposedly very powerful as a way of healing but Ring Bearer’s wound contains evil magic that cannot be dispatched through any means other than magic. Thus it naturally follows that it is only healed once he reaches Rivendell and Elrond uses his elven magic and removes a splinter that was ailing Frodo. There are many more instances of Clute’s definition corresponding with Tolkien’s elves such as the existence of an otherworld to the West that only elves can visit. The important aspects of elves that further allow the protagonist and therebye the reader gain understanding of the world and the quest is their immortality leading to wisdom and magical powers leading to a sense of goodness.

Elven wisdom is used as a tool to further Frodo’s quest and the importance of it. During the chapter The Council of Elrond, Elrond tells the story of the ring and how it was forged secretly in the Mountain of Fire. This bit of information is particularly important when the Fellowship discusses what to do with the ring. Elrond’s wisdom and standing among the Fellowship forces everyone to develop creative plans of what to do with the ring including giving it to Tom Bombadil, throwing it into the sea, taking it to Valinor, or even trying to use it against Sauron. Every plan suggested is shot down until Frodo steps up and volunteers. In Elrond’s infinite wisdom he deems it acceptable for Frodo continuing to bear the ring and for him and Sam to take it to the Mountain of Fire to destroy it. Despite this seemingly horrible idea to have a small hobbit traverse almost all of Middle Earth; it is Elrond’s wisdom that prevails in the decision of what to do and his experience tells him that the quest must go on. The Elves’ immortality is also used as a tool to create an atmosphere in Rivendell that makes the Hobbits feel as if no time at all has passed. The Elves do not feel the same pressures of time as the rest of the folk so in these chapters of the story it creates a moment for story to expand and for plot holes to be filled. When Gandalf describes how he was held prisoner by Saruman it explains to the reader why Gandalf was not able to return to the Shire to help Frodo begin his quest while at the same time describing how Saruman was consumed by of wrongness and evil. Side stories could like this one could not exist without the existence of the elves and their ability to maintain a safe haven for the characters to have reason to share stories without breaking out of the immersion of the quest.

In portal-quest fantasies when there is evil there must be an opposite power of good. The Elves juxtapose and imbody the good that is required to drive the story forward. The story about the Three Elven Rings that are still pure because they have not been touched by Sauron shows that some good is untouchable such as Rivendell. Elrond and Glorfindel both each possessing a ring untarnished by evil let the reader know that this is going to probably be the safest Frodo will ever be. Not only does the magical power of the elves accentuate the idea of good versus evil but elven magic also has an important role in highlighting Frodo’s improbable importance. A weak hobbit has the weight of the world on his shoulders while these elven lords can do little more than shelter Frodo for a few days then point him in the right direction because the quest belongs to him. Elrond explains that the quest “…may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere…” This statement from the elven lord exemplifies exactly how the role an elder race should be implemented in order to further the story. The elder race exists to provide context for the quest but not do actually help in any significant way because the story is about the weak protagonist overcoming overwhelming odds to give the protagonist a sense of success which vicariously gives a similar feeling to the reader.

The Fellowship of the Ring is undoubtedly a portal-quest driven by Tolkien’s excellent use of an elder race of elves. A portal-quest style novel only succeeds by creating a seemingly natural discovery of the fantasy world typically through learning as the protagonist learns. The elves in this portal-quest are used as a way to fill in the reader about the history before story without explicitly breaking out of the story. The elves used in this way is what truly makes this a fantastic engaging fantasy and sets J.R.R. Tolkien apart from other authors.  

16 August 2021

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